Henry, four, was gazing intently at Laozi, the founder of Taoism, perched on the back of a rotund ox. The philosopher’s oversized skull was a hint of his larger-than-normal intellect, but it was the floppy earlobes that drew my son’s admiration.
Still, there was no time to waste: we’d found the sage. Now, to earn our bonus points, Henry had to adopt the sixth-century thinker’s pose atop his six-year-old sister, who became an ox, before we powered on to the next treasure on our hunt.
Museums are funny places: they take objects that were, for the most part, designed to be functional (even if that function was decorative) and trap them under glass boxes as specimens, relics of another way of life.
I spent six years training as an art historian. When I worked in the curatorial departments of two different museums, I often watched children wander the galleries, lulled by the funereal silence into sombre "best behaviour" and, often, indifference to their surroundings. It’s a rare and focused child who spontaneously requests: please may we go to a museum today?
And yet, I cannot imagine a trip to London or Paris or New York without a visit to one of my favourite museums.
The question becomes, then, how to engage children.
Assume that a four-year-old doesn’t wish to wander around with an aloof air, impressing you with his analysis of the statement behind a urinal in a gallery, or the authenticity of that controversial monumental landscape Riverbank, attributed to Dong Yuan, which hangs in the Met’s Chinese rooms – and may be a 10th-century masterpiece or a 20th-century forgery.
Over the years, museums have tried various ways to engage children with art: school groups take tours, sometimes sketching. Workshops are all the rage at half-terms; I’ve spent many a happy afternoon in the rotunda at the British Museum making marionettes for Chinese New Year. Over the Easter holidays, you can build Roman Britain in Minecraft.
These activities are great fun, but if you want to help your children look at the art on show, THATMuse (it stands for Treasure Hunt at the Museum) is a great conduit.
Set up by an American art historian in Paris, it expanded to London a few years ago with a commission from the British Museum, which recognised that the group’s bespoke themed hunts – these have drawn a loyal following from corporate groups, hen parties and tourists – offered something quite different from the museum’s own self-guided treasure maps. Today, it offers hunts at the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, plus the Musee d’Orsay and Louvre.
To begin with, each hunt can be customised for the group. Given my work as a family travel editor, our theme was journeys, and we arrived at the Victoria and Albert Museum ready to rumble with my daughter’s school friend and his technologically whizzy Danish family. Happily for us, this is a distinctly low-tech endeavour.
With two to four people in each group, and at least two teams, each hunt lasts 90 minutes, plus time for scoring at the end. Each team is given the same detailed list of treasure to find. Once you’ve plotted the treasure on a paper map (which requires actual paper map-reading skills), you must strategically manoeuvre your team through the museum as you search for the 25 treasures. You might, for example, choose to find a Noh mask first. For extra points, you can photograph yourself mimicking the mask’s disdainful grimace.
Other extra challenges include making a human chariot in the courtyard and counting ships in the Cast Court surrounding the tomb of St Peter.
One of the joys of THATMuse hunts is that it forces you to explore areas of the museum you might not naturally gravitate towards. When my daughter and I competed in the Natural History Museum hunt on another occasion, one of our treasures was in the rock collection, hidden on one of the upper floors of the Red Zone, and we discovered such interesting specimens that we’ve been back twice.
This is the sort of activity that builds up an appetite; the V&A Cafe is a treat, or you might venture to a Kensington spot. Either way, perhaps let the winning team buy lunch.
The Daily Telegraph